In the late Summer of 1999, I decided to go to Scotland on my own for a week’s holiday on the shores of Loch Ness. I stayed in a picturesque little village called Drumnadrochit.
When I say village, I use the term loosely. The only things that it had to recommend itself as a village was the hotel I was at, the Drumnadochit Motor Inn; a curiosity and glassblower’s shop owned by an ex-hippie named ‘Dougie’; and a small all-purpose shop where you could buy cans of soft drink, crisps, maps, cigarettes, newspapers and odd supermarket type essentials, and not much else. There were also two restaurants, one of which had already given up on the passing Summer trade and the other that could continue its trade all year round as it was also the local pub, proudly proclaiming this fact by its swinging sign: The Connaught Arms.
All of the above buildings were dotted along what could be imagined to be the shortest High Street in Britain, and this with commanding large areas of wild and unused space between each other. A small scattering of private houses could be seen if you stood in the middle of it and looked in either direction. As Drumnadrochit was situated in a valley, steep wooded hills rose above it to the left and the right, and one was left to imagine what might be hidden away up there, if anything at all. One conversation with Donald, the hotel owner, had supplied the answer to this question: there were a couple of farms situated on the hills, as there was good grazing land for sheep and the ubiquitous Highland cows with their shaggy manes and long horns. The high street continued its narrower winding way up around the end of a hill to Urquhart Castle, a local ruined historical landmark that was situated overlooking the broad dark waters of Loch Ness. And that was it.
I didn’t really care about the lack of nightlife or amenities, as the whole reason that I had brought myself to this quiet and out of the way place was to seek tranquillity and solitude to start on writing my new novel. I had specifically chosen it after spending a couple of hours online, wanting to shrug off the rigours of living in London, if even for a few days. But, I unwittingly found myself part of a story of my own.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon on the sixth day of my stay, and since I was due to leave tomorrow afternoon, I had decided that perhaps I should make some effort to, at least, go and take a look at the one and only place of interest that Drumnadrochit had to offer, which was Urquhart Castle. I had spent an unexpectedly enjoyable two hours wandering around the ruins, imagining life in a time so long ago that only echoes of it remained in the darker corners of the rough stone rooms.
Living in South Africa for most of my life, I had only had movies to educate me about historical Scotland… ’Rob Roy’ was a favourite, as was ’Braveheart’, and even though I was not aware of local heroes hailing from this part of it, it helped the imagination. Tired and hungry from the fresh air and the exercise, I decided to return to the hotel for some coffee, before I got back to work on my laptop. I was walking back along the treacherously narrow hilltop road, my destination a distance of about three miles yet, and soon reached the valley floor, which was much flatter. There was no pavement or even a strip of low grass on which a pedestrian could walk safely, and I continually worried about cars coming up from behind me.
On occasion, I noticed smaller side roads leading off into the trees, and thought these must go off to the farms that Donald had told me about. I heard the engine of the sports car before I turned to see it approaching from behind me. The whooping and yelling from its four occupants led me to believe that it was simply joyriding teenagers having a ball in Daddy’s car. I stepped well back into the grassy scrub, next to one of these small dirt side roads, not wanting to be road-kill today. As they sped past me, I felt an excruciating pain on the side my head, and then, passed out.
I woke up in a small bedroom, in an old double bed. I could see slightly yellowed wallpaper on the walls, which might have dated back from the seventies. A coat rack, hung with coats, stood in the right corner, near to the only window, and its cream coloured curtains, dotted with a brown leaf pattern, were partially drawn against the setting sun. Directly ahead of me, two deep brown wooden doors indicated a built-in wardrobe. In the left corner of the room was a white door, which was closed. Finally, a small table sat at the side of the bed, and on it stood a lamp. The room was devoid of ornaments or knick-knacks of any kind except for a small painting of a landscape that hung on the wall to the left.
Where on earth was I?
I tried to sit up, but my head pounded, and I fell back onto the pillows. The last things I remembered was walking back to my hotel, and the car with the joy riders in it…and then, pain. Did someone hit me on the head? Had I been kidnapped?
These thoughts started to alarm me, and again, I tried to get up, this time groaning because my head hurt so much.
It seemed that my effort was heard, because the door opened and an elderly man came into the room. He wore a deep maroon waistcoat over a white collared long-sleeved shirt, and bi-focal glasses.
“Oh, you’re awake! That is very good.” He said in a deep Scots drawl. “We was afeard that you might need to go to the hospital, lassie.”
“What happened?” I asked weakly. “My head hurts.”
“Aye, that it will.” He smiled and gently made me lie down again. “We think you got knocked out by someone throwing a bottle out of a passing car. Can you remember anything?”
“Yes. I was walking back to my hotel. There were some people in a sports car…they sped past me and I felt a pain on my head…then I must have blacked out. It was a bottle…?”
“Yep. Laying just a few feet away and bloodied, like your head. Just as we thought then, and no funny business.” He said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “Now, let me take a look at you.”
I flinched away from him.
“Don’t fear, lassie. My name is Dr. Haig. Robert called me after he found you down at the bottom of the drive. I need to check if everything is alright with your noggin.”
He took a small torch out of his pocket and shined it in my eyes. He asked me what my name was, what the date was, and who was Prime Minister, all of which I could answer correctly.
“Well, I think you have nothing more than a mild concussion. You’ll be a little dizzy on your feet for a while, and I’ll leave some painkillers for the headache. The cut on your scalp is only small, and won’t need stitches. I recommend that you stay here for a few days to rest up. I will square it away with Robert.”
“Oh, no…” I protested. “I really should go back to my hotel. See, I’m from London, and my coach leaves tomorrow from Inverness.”
“I certainly don’t think it is a good idea to travel such a distance in your condition, however mild.” Dr Haig said, shaking his head. “You might do yourself a further injury that way. I know Donald up at the Motor Inn, and I will ask him to have your things brought here. You can go and settle with him in a few days when you’re feeling better. Until then, Robert won’t mind helping you out. He’s a good lad.”
“Robert?” I said the name, a little confused. This was the second time I had heard the name.
“Aye, Robert MacGregor. He owns this farm.” Dr Haig supplied, putting his little torch away.
Then a middle-aged woman came in, dressed in trousers and a tabard. She had a lined face but a kind smile.
“Oh dearie me, she’s awake! Good!”
“This is Dotty. She is Robert’s housekeeper.” Dr Haig introduced me to the woman who was wringing her hands. “Suzanne is going to be fine, Dot. I am going to find Robert now and tell him that she needs to stay a while. And then I am going home for my tea. Let me know if there is anything else, won’t you?”
“Yes, Doctor.” Dotty replied, with the same country burr that the man had.
Dr Haig left and Dotty replaced him by the side of my bed.
“Poor lass!” She sympathised kindly. “Imagine running into trouble just outside…was lucky that Robert found you when he did, or it might have been much worse, on that road. Picked you up like you weighed nothing more than a sack of potatoes and was all ahuff when he got you inside. I could not think a straight thought when I saw the blood on your heed, but Robert told me to call Dr Haig and I did so right quick.”
“Robert picked me up?” I asked, quite unable to believe that any man could pick up my dead weight. I was nearly six foot tall, and not entirely the skinniest of women.
“He’s a good strong Scots lad, is Robert, so it was no trouble at all. He’s quiet, doesn’t say much, and there’s some what doubts…no, I shouldn’t say…I think you’ll like him anyway.” She patted my hand. “Don’t worry. He’ll not mind you being here. He is a kind lad. Now, I must shift myself as well. It’ll be dark in another hour. I’m sure Robert will be in to see you as soon as he’s finished up at the field.”
She left, closing the door behind her, and I raised an eyebrow. She had started to say something about this person, this Robert, and then, had changed her mind. Perhaps she did not think it prudent to discuss his private affairs with me, at least, affairs that others appeared to discuss quite openly. I was starting to want to meet this ‘lad’, Robert MacGregor, named, I realised, for Rob Roy MacGregor, that could pick up a woman of my size and carry her God knows what distance, and who seemed to be the talk of the town.
But my head hurt, so I lay back down, and drifted off into sleep.
When I woke up again, it was dark outside, I could see, but someone had turned on the lamp beside the bed. I sat up, and leaned against the pillows. I noticed then that my luggage sat just inside the door, and with a sigh, I resigned myself to being an unwilling guest in a strange house.
My head felt cotton-woolly from sleep, and it thumped. I thought that perhaps I should take a couple of the painkillers Dr Haig had left, but I had no water. Not wanting to yell for service like an invalid, I thought that I would try to find some myself. I got up slowly. My head swam and I felt a little dizzy. A sudden sway made me lose my balance, and my hand knocked the lamp over with a crash. Leaning over from my now resumed sitting position on the edge of the bed, I was just trying to set it right when I heard the door open.
I turned my head painfully, to see a man standing in the doorway, a simply beautiful man, all of six-foot and five, I guessed, with long dark hair, and a face browned by the summer sun. Intense green eyes watched me silently.
“I’m…I’m sorry…” was all I could say, embarrassed, not only because I was destroying the house, but because his appearance had somewhat confused me. This could not be…surely...this was no mere ‘lad’?
“It’s alright, lass.” He said in a deep baritone that seemed to emanate from deep within his wide chest. He wore a black t-shirt and faded jeans. The heavy farm boots on his feet thumped on the wooden floor as he stepped forward to help me with the light.
“You should be in bed.” He said, looking straight in my eyes.
I came to then, more out of a need to actually speak a coherent sentence. “I was…I wanted to…”
But it was no use. No coherency was going to come to my aid today. I sighed, and blinked, trying to clear my head.
“Are you feeling alright? Do you want me to fetch the doctor again?” He asked, still standing there.
“No, there’s no need. My head just hurts, that’s all. I wanted some water so I could take a couple of painkillers.” I replied. He went out of the room and returned a few minutes later with a full glass.
As he handed it to me, I was starting to feel a little less dazed, and managed to say: “You must be Robert.”
“Aye, I am.” He replied, still interestedly regarding me. I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable by his scrutiny and took the pills.
“My name is Suzanne.” I offered, once I had swallowed them down.
“I know.” He replied.
I looked at him, not registering.
“Dr Haig told me, and I brought your things from the hotel.” He explained, putting his hands in his pockets. A gesture that told me that he was just as ill at ease in this situation as I was. “He said that you need to stay here for a bit.”
“Thank you, and yes, I believe I am, as long as you’re okay with it.” I replied with a weak smile.
“No problem.” He said. Then he looked a little uncomfortable, as if he had run out of things to say, and found it hard to speak easily to someone he didn’t know. Eventually, when I thought he was not going to say another word, he spoke again.
“I don’t recognise your accent, Suzanne. Where are you from?” He asked.
“A hundred places today, I think.” I replied hazily, without thought. He looked puzzled, and I hurriedly said: “I’m from South Africa. That’s the accent I imagine you can hear.”
“Good rugby players, South Africa.” He supplied, and then gave me a small smile.
“Yes.” I smiled back. “I do believe they are.”
“Do you think you’d like something to eat? Dotty left a casserole in the oven.” He offered.
At the mention of food, my stomach rumbled loudly. Taking a bump on the head had not affected my appetite, I thought a little acidly to myself.
“Yes, I think I’d like to eat.” I nodded.
“Can you stand up without falling over?” He asked, and then laughed softly.
I blushed then, not knowing why I should but only that he was sweet, and amusing, and he had me there, I would admit.
“I’m not really sure that you should trust me to walk around on my own right now. I may destroy more than your lamp the next time.”
He offered me his hand. “Then I will help you.”
I took his hand, large and rough from work, but warm and dry. He helped me to stand up and then let me lean on his arm. He smelled like straw, and sand, and outside…a clean, earthy smell that came to me as I stood in closer quarter to him. He gently led me out of the room, across a small passageway and into a kitchen. It had a small central dining table with four chairs. He sat me down and busied himself with the meal while I looked around. It was a pretty kitchen. A woman had once obviously lived here and had put up green and white gingham curtains, and lovingly cared for the plants that stood here and there, looking a little like they needed some care now. A notice board was pinned full of leaflets, notices and reminders, some new and some looking yellowed and faded, like they’d been there an awfully long time. It made me wonder.
“Where is your family, Robert?” I asked, nonchalantly.
“My parents are passed away.” He said. “I have no other family except an uncle who lives in Glasgow.”
“And you don’t have a girlfriend or…?” I let my question hang in the air.
He had his back to me at that moment, so I was not able to see his face. But he had stopped dead still in what he was doing and I thought that he had turned his head to look at me, but not. I then realised that my question had obviously raised a sore point.
I looked down at the wood of the table, feeling stupid that I had blundered in somewhere that I shouldn’t have.
“No.” With that, he resumed his task.
“I’m sorry.” I said softly. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
“There’s no need to apologise.” He said, putting a filled plate down on the table in front of me. “Would you like some wine?”
“I’d better not…flying high on painkillers right now.” I looked up at him with a sheepish smile.
He then got the knives and forks, and a bottle of red wine, which he uncorked. He offered me lemonade, which I accepted. After he had also brought two glasses to the table, he sat down.
“Well, eat up.” He said, and we started on our meal.
The casserole was delicious and the lemonade relieved the dry mouth I had. The painkillers had kicked in, and I no longer felt as if my head was going to fall off. My host was friendly, if not a little reserved, and he didn’t seem to mind me being here, so I relaxed more.
“Why did you come to Scotland?” He asked me as we ate.
“It looked like a beautiful place. I’ve always wanted to visit. I came up on my own to find a bit of peace, to start writing another novel, and have a bit of a holiday from London. It’s a big city, so it’s not very quiet.” I replied.
“You live there now?” He asked, a little puzzled. “I thought…”
“I’m originally from South Africa, about two years ago. Came to London to seek my fortune.” I laughed. “In retrospect, I probably could have chosen a better place. It’s just far too busy and the people are quite cold. I’m not really used to that stand-offish way they have with foreigners. But, I’m pretty much left alone and that’s okay…I…I like it that way.” I thought that maybe I was just rambling on too much now, and bit my lip. I was sure that he wouldn’t be interested in my otherwise dull and uninteresting life.
“How on earth did you find Drumnadrochit?” He smiled softly. “It’s the smallest village in the Highlands, and possibly much of Scotland too. We don’t even have traffic lights.”
“Donald had a listing for his hotel on the Internet. And it’s fine, it suited my needs. At least, until I was forced into a more intimate acquaintance with its teenaged inhabitants. The best laid plans of mice and men…”
I broke off, looking at my plate.
“…have worked out as they should.” He said, and I looked up to see him giving me a serious look.
I laughed softly. “No, that was not quite what I meant.”
Then he said: “I dreamed of you. I knew you were coming.”
“What?” I was startled, and a little confused.
“You probably think I’m daft.” He started again, now looking down at his plate, and I thought, a little uneasy.
“How could you know that?” I cajoled, not believing him, and feeling just a little bit weirded out.
He sighed. “I told you. I dreamed of you.”
“So, you’re like…psychic or something?” I asked, meeting his eyes again.
“No.” He replied, and gave a small smile. “It just happened one night and I thought it was just a silly dream. I dream of hundreds of things, and mostly of the farm, but one night, a few months ago, I saw you, and now you are here.”
“Okay…” I was not sure what I was expected to do with this information, so directly given to me. “You’re not a weirdo, are you? Because Dr. Haig assured me that I would be okay here.”
My somewhat frank yet amused demand, which admittedly, was my way, seemed to upset him.
“Don’t panic.” He said, not looking at me now. “You’re quite safe. Most others will tell you, because apparently, they know all about me. However, Dr Haig can be trusted and he would not leave you with a weirdo.”
He got up suddenly, dumped his empty plate in the sink, and then left the room.
Oh, dear. I’d upset him again. I didn’t know what to think. He had dreamed of me. It was kind of nice, if not a little strange. And he was kind of nice…no, in fact, he was a lot nice. By far the most handsome man I had ever clapped eyes on, and he had been nothing but kind and civil towards me so far. He was reserved though, like he thought a lot about things. My mother always used to say: ‘still waters run deep’, and here now, I thought that I could see what she had meant. It seemed that Robert MacGregor had a secret, and it appeared that everyone but me knew what it was. It stung him constantly, judging by his reaction just now and unfortunately, I seemed to have just the right knack of aggravating it.
I finished my meal and decided to leave him to cool off. Perhaps I had overstepped a mark. In an attempt to display my regret, I washed the plates in the sink, and he had not returned by the time I finished, so I thought that the best thing for me to do was to retire to my room. He might not like me wandering around his house, and I thought that, under the circumstances, perhaps an early night would be a good idea, as much for his mood as for my head.
Early the next morning, I was woken by a soft thumping and scratching noise at my bedroom door, and I heard Robert’s voice talking softly. Of course, I didn’t know what to think, and by the time I had gotten up, rooted around in my bags for fresh clothes, dressed and opened the door, there was no-one there. Admittedly, it unnerved me a little. I couldn’t think anything logical about the occurrence, and who could blame me, given my odd situation? But I told myself that I must just have been imagining things. Maybe Robert had been doing something in the passage, and perhaps something had fallen and knocked against the door? If I thought about it hard enough, I might find a logical explanation, without giving myself over to wild imaginings. Perhaps if I went to find him, he might explain of his own accord. I decided I would try the kitchen, but was only greeted by the sight of one empty coffee cup standing on the sink, and no Robert.
I opened the top half of the kitchen door. It looked out onto an earth courtyard, surrounded by various small buildings. A couple of chickens pecked at seed on the ground and wandered around freely. I was sure that I heard ducks or geese in the distance too. A dripping tap, mounted in the wall of the building across from me, was the only other sign of life, and the water made soft ‘plunk-plunk’ noises as it fell into the filled metal trough underneath it.
I decided to try a different tack, and headed back to the passage off the kitchen. I stood peering into the cool darkness, and heard no sounds of anyone, perhaps in another room.
“Robert?” I called, and jumped when I realised my voice was amplified in the silent passage.
But there was no answer.
Okay, so he was gone. I debated with myself if he would think me rude if I helped myself to toast, and then finally convinced myself that surely he would not deny basic sustenance to a guest, and especially if he was not here to offer it. Five minutes later, I was munching my toast thoughtfully and wondered where he would have gone off to so early. It was hardly six o’clock.
Then I remembered that he ran a farm, and probably single-handedly. Of course he’d be up early and gone from the house. I’d had a couple of friends who had farms back in South Africa, and knew from chilly experience that their rising time had been 4am, come rain, shine or hail, and even visitors weren’t excused. I remembered icy grass in the winter, trudging up to the stables when it was hardly even light out, to feed the horses with my friend Patricia. Farm folk were always fit from back-breaking work, up early, and most nights, to bed early. But don’t let that fool you: they had also invariably been party-animals. I’d also had some wild parties on farms before, everyone completely going off their heads, dashing about fields and paddocks at all hours of the night, laughing our heads off. Perhaps there was something about being able to make all the noise you wanted and not having neighbours close enough to complain, no police to intervene about loud music, and indeed no-one had to drive anywhere so being tipsy was never a problem. Maybe it was just about being young, and free, and simply high on life. I sighed. Good times they’d been.
Robert Macgregor looked like he had not had a day of fun in his whole life. Then I chastised myself for this assumption. I did not know him at all. He wasn’t a teenager. I guessed him to be about 30. And, he had responsibilities. Besides that, no-one else appeared to live here, so he probably didn’t get to speak to anyone else for days at a time, except perhaps with Dotty, and I didn’t know how often she came in to do her work. He was single, and I wondered if he had any friends in the local area, knowing that Drumnadrochit was, by his own admission, the smallest village in Scotland that didn’t even have any traffic lights. It said a lot about the absolute lack of people. Hardly party central. I felt a little sorry for him then.
Toast finished, I cleared up. Then I wondered what to do with myself next. Perhaps Robert had a lounge, and possibly a TV. I wandered around the quiet passages of the old house, with only the sound of my bare feet on the wooden floors to accompany me. I soon found a lounge, and standing in the doorway, I was pleased to note that a large TV stood at the far side of the room. This floor was made of slate paving stone, and it was cool underfoot. A sheepskin rug lay on the floor between a long settee and the TV, and small chairs occupied the corners of the room. Sliding doors to the right indicated a back exit, but curtains were drawn across them so I couldn’t see out. On the left were shelves that went from floor to ceiling, and nestled between books, CDs and video tapes of movies was a large hi-fi.
Something about this was so familiar. It looked a lot like my room in the house-share in London, and it seemed that, just like me, Robert liked media, and I felt I knew why he didn’t need anyone else to be here. I read, watched movies and listened to music rather than going to pubs or clubs. It was sometimes more fun than being out, and one found many friends among the printed words, visual images and digital sounds. It could draw you in so well you could come to the edge of reclusiveness. I also trusted the company of music and stories. It never let me down. It was predictable, safe and fun, unlike the often painful and scarily incontrollable human race. Experience had taught me some painful lessons, and people could be so cruel to each other. You couldn’t just switch them off. So, for the last ten years or so, I had receded into the fantasy world portrayed by the stories that I read, watched and wrote, and the songs I listened to, that reminded me often of the fascinating yet treacherous psyche of human relationships. And I thought I could understand my reserved host a little better now.
Leaning against the doorjamb, I sighed and said quietly: “Robert, you and I are so alike.”
The unexpected reply made me jump, and embarrassed, I turned to find Robert standing behind me. How he had managed to sneak up behind me so quietly, I didn’t know.
“My God!” I breathed, a hand up to my thumping heart. “I didn’t hear you come back.”
“I didn’t mean to startle you.” He said, a small smile playing on his lips. “You look so guilty.”
I flushed pink. “I was just looking for something to do. I didn’t know how long you’d be gone for…”
I broke off, feeling a little ridiculous, and slightly overcome by his nearness. He was now leaning on the doorjamb where I had been, and I looked down to see that he had removed his shoes and stood only in socks. That was why I had not heard him. He wore a blue t-shirt today, with faded blue jeans. His hair had been loosely tied back at the nape of his neck. And his unusual green eyes were amused, while his arms were folded casually.
“And I’m not guilty of anything…see, I had not even crossed the threshold of the room until you made me jump into it.” I said, defensively. I didn’t want him to think I was sneaking around and prying. But, I knew that I had been guilty of wondering about him, and his private life.
He laughed softly. “It’s okay. I take it you enjoy music and movies? You can go do anything you like. I have to go back out to the fields. I’m bringing in the last of the harvest before the rain comes.”
“Do you need any help?” I offered, thinking that I would prefer to go outside for some fresh air now instead, if that was possible. It was quite a nice day outside, and I felt a little cooped up in here.
He looked surprised. “Are you sure you’re up to it? Dr Haig said you should rest.”
“I feel fine. No more headache. Fresh air will do me good. Any Doctor will tell you that.” I replied, hoping that I was managing to convince him.
“Okay.” He gestured that I should walk through to the passage ahead of him.
Chivalrous too, I noted.
We both went and found our shoes, at least, I only had walking boots, but they would be good enough to go tramping about in a field. We climbed into a white pick-up truck, dusty from use on the farm’s dirt roads, and we drove out to the farm proper. We passed a massive herd of cattle in a fenced-off pasture, and Robert explained to me that, like many farmers in the area, he was a beef farmer, producing the well-known ‘Aberdeen Angus’ beef, that I knew was popular on the menus of the more expensive restaurants all over the country. The fields we were on our way to now grew a good part of the feed required by the cattle for the winter, hay grasses, which had already been cut, dried and baled, and then left for final collection on the fields in the late summer sun. He was almost at the end of the stacking, where the tied rectangular bales would be collected onto the back of the truck and deposited on outside wooden pallets and covered over with tarps, for later use. He told me his hired labourers had left the day before yesterday, leaving him to finish the last of the stacking, and as we drove further, I soon saw that only about a quarter of the bales on the field were left to do now.
Robert showed me how to pick up the bales without them falling apart, and then to deposit each one on the lowered back of the pick-up truck for him to stack them, which would save him having to get off the vehicle each time to collect the next one. They weren’t too heavy to carry and I managed it pretty well while he stood on top of the ever-growing stack and took up each bale as I brought it over. I started to enjoy this labour, because the sun was shining and the day was warm. Soon, he decided to take off his shirt, balling it up and flinging it into the front of the truck. I looked up as he threw it and was suddenly struck by the sight of a tall, shirtless and sun-browned man, standing in the sun, on top of a stack of hay bales, swinging each new one onto an ever growing pile, and sweating with the effort of his labour. I was taken, for a minute, at the attractiveness of his physique, because he was lean, and muscular, in all the right places, and I must have stopped to stare (although I swear I was not aware of it!). He looked down at me then, and with a quizzical smile, he asked me if I was alright.
I wanted to die with shame at being caught out in my unplanned but blatant scrutiny of his body. I hastily grabbed the next bale and muttered: “Yes, I’m fine.” I did not dare to look up at him again because I obviously could not be trusted to behave in a decent manner. In another hour or so, we had finally finished, after unpacking the pile from the truck onto the final pallet, and then pulled a large length of blue sheeting across the top, throwing guy ropes across it and securing them down with metal spikes hammered into the ground. If we had done our job well, the cover would protect the dried hay from any rain, which would just ruin it into a mouldy and poisonous mess that could not be fed to the cattle. I didn’t know about Robert, but I felt like I’d really achieved something, as we gathered up the tools and put them in the back of the truck.
We soon settled ourselves in the front seat of the vehicle, and I briefly wondered where we were headed to next. Only briefly, mind you, because if I had been having trouble concentrating with him shirtless on top of a hay stack, I certainly was having a worse time of it now, seated next to him in the confines of the cab. He said something to me and I looked at him, stupidly enough, because it saw to it that another deep coloured blush rose to my cheeks.
“I’m sorry…what?” It came out like a croak. I cleared my throat, embarrassed at the difficulty I was having with simple conversation now. What was wrong with me?! It was not like I had not seen shirtless men, even ones close to being as attractive as him, at least a fair few times since I’d been alive and gifted with the power of sight, so why was he having such a disconcerting effect on me?
“I said I think I deserve a beer now that the harvest is finished, and, would you like one too?” He sat, arms leaning on the steering wheel, and I imagined, quite sure that I was nuts.
“A beer…yes, I can do that.” I answered quickly, looking at the dashboard. Anywhere, as long as it wasn’t at him.
“Are you feeling okay?” He asked again, concerned.
“Will you stop asking me that?!” I returned, a little too harshly. And then I breathed in, trying to calm myself. “I’m fine, I really am. Let’s go and have that beer.”
“It’s the shirt, isn’t it?” He said, realisation dawning at last.
“Um…lack of shirt.” I corrected him, after I had died a thousand deaths in my embarrassment at being caught out, again.
“Do I offend you if I am not wearing it?” He asked, still making no move to turn on the engine.
A little hysterical laugh rose from my chest before I could stop it. “No! God no…” I waved a hand at the air, trying to be nonchalant and failing miserably.
“Then why are you acting so strangely?”
I was dumbfounded. I realised then that he had not made the connection…that his shirtless chest was making me have a very female reaction. I decided to be straight with him.
“Have you seen yourself, Robert?” I asked, looking him squarely in the eyes this time.
“A good many times, yes.” He smiled.
“And you don’t think that wandering around shirtless in front of female guests, who you don’t know, is a little …improper?”
“Why now?” He laughed this time, and I could see that he must be thinking that the crack I’d taken on the head had definitely left me brainless. “It’s the 90’s, in case you haven’t noticed. I walk around half-dressed most of the time in summer, and no one has complained before. Even Dotty gets on with it alright.”
“That’s because she’s like a hundred and twelve and thinks of you like her own son.” I returned, a little incredulous that I was actually having this conversation with him.
“And you?” His question came at me, point-blank. He watched me for my response.
This was ludicrous. I felt that he was testing me now, in some odd way. And I felt that I should stand up to him.
“I look at you like a woman looks at a man. Do you get it now?” I replied, a little put out that I had been drawn into such a personal confession by a total stranger.
“Yes. I do.” He started the engine, looking straight ahead at the path down to the farmhouse. He didn’t say another word until we had pulled up in front of the house. As we got out, he reached for the shirt and pulled it on. I saw him do this out of the corner of my eye, because I was too busy walking to the kitchen door, feeling uncomfortable with the new tension that had arisen, and the fact that I was clearly not dealing with it very well.
He got two cans of lager out of the fridge and handed one to me. Then I followed him back to the lounge and he opened the sliding door that led out, as I had thought, to a porch at the back of the house. Two comfortable rattan chairs sat and waited for us in the cool shade. I could hear only crickets and the rustle of a light breeze through the foliage that surrounded the place, and he invited me to sit.
Once he had also done so, he cracked open the ring-pull of his can and took a long drink of its contents. I opened mine too, but sipped it gently, feeling like a huge prat, and staring out over the pretty garden of wildflowers. Beyond that, unseparated by any fences, lay a wild meadow. I couldn’t bring myself to speak, because I was still reeling from the conversation in the truck. I was at a loss to explain why, at my age of 27, I suddenly found myself acting like a schoolgirl, and why, oh God why, I had told him that I look at him like a woman looks at a man. He must think that I am hot to trot! Which just was not true! Okay, yes, he was too damn attractive for any sane woman to bear, but my days of wanton flings and casual sex were over! They had just landed me in too much trouble, and I had always ended up feeling cheap, used and finally abandoned, so I had forced myself into early celibacy, perhaps on some misguided decision that it might help me to make better choices. I liked to think that I had grown up since those days.
“So, what do you do with yourself in London?” Robert asked, looking at me expectantly.
“I live in Finsbury Park. I have a room in a house share. I work as a secretary in an Italian restaurant group in Bermondsey.” I answered, keeping it strictly to the point. I didn’t want to embarrass myself again.
“And for fun?” He asked, with a small smile.
“I…uh…” I shrugged. It was never easy explaining to others that I liked, more or less, to keep my own company. “I write…and I read.”
“And now that we have covered your basic abilities…” He prompted me with a mischievous smile.
I felt a little silly then, and smiled into my beer.
“I have a sister and a brother-in-law in Tuffnell Park. Sometimes I go over to theirs for dinner or just to spend some time.”
“What about friends?” He asked next.
“I know a couple of people from work, but we don’t ever see each other socially. Most of the friends I have are people I knew from my old neighbourhood in South Africa, who have travelled over here too. One of the guys who lives upstairs from me is good for a chat sometimes, unless I’m yelling at him to turn his music down. His ex-girlfriend Jean lives two roads up, and she pops in to see me occasionally.”
“How about deeper relationships? Are you involved with someone special?”
Then the penny dropped. I shook my head and laughed softly. I had not realised beforehand that his line of questioning had actually been leading somewhere quite specific, but I understood where it was going now.
“No, not involved in any deeper relationship right now.” I replied.
“Why all the questions?” I countered with one of my own, not altogether enjoying the gentle but systematic inspection of my life.
He shrugged. “Just trying to get to know you better. All these questions need to be asked and answered in order for that to happen.”
He was right. People had to ask about each other’s lives in order to understand the person. Once they understood each other, they knew each other better. Only he seemed to want to pack the process into as short a time as possible.
“Fair enough.” I agreed. “But why do you feel the urge to get to know me? I’ve ended up on your doorstep by sheer accident. Another day or two, and then I’ll be gone. Plus the fact that I have already upset you a couple of times since yesterday. Are you really sure you want to go to such effort?”
“Why not?” He asked, taking another sip of his beer.
“Okay, you’re going to have to stop doing that.” I put my hand up, a little frustrated.
He laughed softly. “Sorry. I didn’t realise I was making you uncomfortable. And you don’t have to answer any question that you don’t want to.”
“I don’t have anything to hide.” I then said, knowing I was acting over-defensively. “I’m just not used to being questioned so directly about my personal life. If you’ll make it feel less like an interrogation, I’ll answer any question you’ve got.”
“Okay then: why don’t you have a boyfriend?” He shot back, and amusement shone in his eyes.
I sighed. There was no clear way to wriggle my way out of it and he seemed to genuinely want to know why I was single, so the only thing I could do here was try to explain my unusual choice and the reasons behind it.
“Men, in general, have turned out to be more trouble than they’re worth. In my experience, they take what they want and then they leave. These days I choose not to put myself in the market for heartbreak, and I’m much happier that way.”
“Someone hurt you once.” He said, still gazing at me with those intense green eyes.
I found no reason to lie.
“Not just once. A good few times. I guess I don’t measure up to the idea of the perfect woman, whatever she might be.” I felt my mood slipping down into my shoes. “And I grew tired of it, the distress and the bullshit that always seems to come along with it. ”
“Tired as in you’ll never have a boyfriend ever again or tired as in...quietly waiting for the right one?”
“You know, I could be quite offended that you’re implying that I’m saying one thing but secretly hoping for another outcome. And that’s a deeply personal question to ask, Robert.” I replied, digging my heels in at last. “I don’t feel that I know you well enough to answer that, not by a long shot.”
“You said you’d answer anything I asked.” He reminded me, taking another sip of his beer.
I bit my lip. Okay, so he had me there. There was no point in beating any further about the bush with this, or he was never going to leave it be.
“Tired as in I’ll probably never have a boyfriend again, and I’m not waiting for the right one because getting hurt is inevitable.”
He processed this information for a moment. “And what about it happening anyway?”
I was confused now. “How do you mean?”
“What about meeting someone like you’ve never ever met before, who completely reverses any hurt that has ever come before?”
I laughed then. He looked a little surprised at my outburst, but he was not laughing with me, so I took that to mean that he wasn’t joking, and in fact, was being quite serious about it.
“Sorry, but that’s just ridiculous fantasy! If any man like that exists on this earth, please, do give him my phone number!” I said cynically and shook my head, taking another sip of my own beer.
“I wouldn’t have to. He’s sitting right here.”
I nearly choked on my beer. I swallowed it down with an effort, and turned surprised eyes to him. He sat there looking at me, still perfectly serious, no trace of a smile or even remotely looking like he was teasing me.
“Okay…” I ventured, unsure of what I was supposed to do with that information.
“Big city girl, huh? So cynical, and you’ve totally stopped believing in miracles, and yourself, for that matter. What is it that you’re going to do with this self-imposed relationship exile you’ve placed yourself in then, Suzanne? Become a nun? Because it seems the next logical choice to me.” Now he WAS teasing, and it was starting to piss me off, if I was honest.
“No.” I shook my head at his temerity. “Enough questions about me, Robert MacGregor, small-town boy. It’s my turn to ask some of you.”
“That was not part of the deal.”
“What deal? We didn’t make any deal!” I scoffed. “And it is only fair that I get to ask you some questions in return. You’ve grilled me for long enough.”
“You don’t have to ask me any questions because I’ll tell you the most important things about me that you need to know: I work hard, I’m honest and I like you.”
I didn’t know where to look, and especially after the last part of that statement. Just when I thought I was getting used to his forthrightness, he kept coming out with the next thing to stun and amaze me with!
“Thank you.” It came out sounding a little strangled, and I really didn’t know what else to say. It was either a blatant come-on or unbridled flattery, but both, I felt, would lead me into murky waters, the kind where I believed that what he was saying was actually the truth, and not just an attempt to get some passing leg-over.
“Sorry.” He said then, somewhat sheepishly. “I think my directness comes from having lived on my own too long. Perhaps I just don’t have the hang of those careful ‘social graces’ you folks like to use in the big city. Yes, I’m a ‘small-town boy’. It shows then, huh?”
“It’s fine, Robert.” I smiled gently, relenting. “Yes, you’re direct, and yes, that is probably because you’ve lived alone for a while, but it is, funnily enough, more like how people do things in South Africa. I originally come from small town roots myself. I guess that I have been in London too long, having learned that such directness could probably get you arrested. I just didn’t expect it, that’s all. I’m sorry if I seem defensive, and I like you too, if that’s any consolation, for someone I have only known what? 18 hours? But, I reserve the right to withdraw that statement if you become a weirdo in the next 18 hours.”
He laughed softly, looking more appeased. “Fine!”
We were quiet for a while after that, and it felt to me that we had crossed some kind of line. Perhaps it was the one that was never quite clear: from meeting someone, to having them know you think they’re alright. And the conversation had proved, if nothing else, that he was a fairly normal kind of guy, even though it had become a little prematurely personal, due to his lack of practised social graces.
“Why are you also still alone, Robert?” I asked, curious about him and his own mystery, more than ever now.
I looked at him, and he looked at me, and for a minute I thought I could see real fear in his eyes. Then he got up and left the porch without saying another word.
Can’t leave it alone, can you? I berated myself. We were having a perfectly reasonable conversation and then, you go and screw it all up, even though he’s made it clear that he won’t talk about himself!
But why?! Something inside me asked plaintively. What is it that he’s hiding?! I’ve got to know, because he could still turn out to be some kind of nut!
He just has issues, my angry voice countered. Who doesn’t? You certainly do! And because you’re such a weakling ninny that you’ll spill it out when pressed a little, doesn’t mean that he has to be the same!
I put my beer can down on the porch, determined to find him and apologise. It had been such a nice day so far, even though I was sure that I had embarrassed myself at least five times, but still, I didn’t want him to decide that I had no manners at all because I was not able to mind my mouth.
I found him washing the truck in the front courtyard. He had the hose in his hand and he was furiously scrubbing away at the bonnet with a big yellow soapy sponge.
“Robert, I’m sorry.” I said, before I could convince myself to back out of it. “I guess I was just feeling that we’d...I don’t know...come to some better understanding and that we were friends now, that we could ask each other questions like that. I realise now that I’m probably wrong in that assumption, since you decided to withdraw from the conversation rather suddenly.”
“It’s okay. Just leave it.” He said abruptly, not looking at me, and venting his ire out on the paintwork of the truck.
But I stood my ground, convinced he was just pushing it all aside so there didn’t have to be a scene. It was a guy thing, the world over.
“Won’t you come back, please? We were having a really good chat, and we can carry on, can’t we?”
He stopped what he was doing for a moment and stared at the water running out of the hose across the bonnet of the truck.
“Just leave it, okay?” He looked at me and his jaw was set.
“Okay.” I held up my hands, then turned and walked away. I had been told twice to ‘just leave it’ and well, so be it.
I returned to my room with a deflated feeling. I sat down on the edge of the bed and thought about this odd man. I shook my head. I was obviously causing him some discomfiture with my presence and good sense dictated that I leave. If I hurried, I might still be able to catch my coach, which was departing from Inverness in another hour and a half.
I started to pack my things, hoping that a taxi would come all the way out here for me. I would ask Robert if I might use his telephone in another few minutes to call one.
“Where are you going?” came his voice.
I turned to see him standing at the open door to my bedroom.
“Home.” I said plainly, and turned back to my task. I was just starting to get used to the way he kept coming upon me so quietly.
“Please don’t leave. Not like this.” He said softly.
I stopped what I was doing, and didn’t turn to look at him. I just couldn’t. I was out of my depth in this strange situation. I was in the house of a man I did not know at all, except for his name, and I had learned very fast that I was not to ask him about anything more. I couldn’t trust this.
As if sensing my thoughts, he spoke again:
“I am the one that must apologise. There are some things in my life that are complicated, and I don’t find it easy to explain them.” He hesitated. “But I meant what I said, Suzanne. I do like you, and I want you to stay, at least for a little while longer. Please.”
The tone in his voice tugged at my heartstrings. He was trying so hard to get me to stay, and I knew he was struggling because his words came out hesitantly, almost measured, so that he did not screw it up at the most crucial moment. Who was I to condemn his effort when I had been guilty of barging in where I was not welcome a few minutes ago? But still, why would I stay? All the misunderstanding aside, what should keep me here? My holiday was at an end now. I felt well enough to travel back to London, regardless of Dr Haig’s advice to the contrary. I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me.
“Then tell me, at least, why I should stay.” I asked.
“Stay for me.” He said, and this time there was no hesitation. I turned and looked at him, still holding the shirt I had been folding. I was sure that he could see more questions in my eyes, because I was not sure that I understood his reasoning correctly. Had I not made myself clear before, on the fact that I was not available for...whatever it was he wanted from me? But, before I could actually utter another word, he stepped up to me, and kissed me.
The shirt dropped out of my hands. He put his hand on the nape of my neck and supported it gently, which was probably wise since I was totally surprised by what was happening and might have done something stupid like fall over backwards. My eyes went wide for a moment, but it was true. Robert MacGregor was indeed kissing me, and his mouth was soft and warm and he smelled like hay, and musky perspiration, and all my thoughts were rolling into one silver stream of alert consciousness until it stopped. I found myself gazing into his green eyes, shocked into muteness.
“Okay?” He whispered.
“Okay.” I replied.
Then he left. I watched his back as he walked across the passage, into the kitchen and back out to the truck. I was still standing there dazzled by what had happened when I heard him turn the water on again and continue to rinse the soap off the bonnet of the vehicle, like nothing had happened. Then I sat down on the bed, and wiped my hands across my face, trying to clear my head.
Now you need to know something about me: I was not under any illusion that the kinds of extraordinary things that happened to the heroines in the stories I wrote or read would ever happen to me. I certainly was not a beauty by any stretch of the imagination and often I had been shown by people in general, and particularly told by men I had become involved with, however long or short, that I was a dominant sort and therefore not the answer to a gentleman’s prayer. As this decision on their part usually came towards the end of an involvement, and I had already fallen head-over-heels with the object of my desire, my feelings were ignored and I was always left to cope with the heartache on my own. I thought, at one point, that I could counteract this trend by allowing myself to be persuaded to become intimate with the man far sooner than I should have, and this had no effect other than making me feel even worse, as well as cheap and used, when he finally walked out of my door. Soon enough, I gave it all up, because I had just not been able to get any of it right. The memories of those broken dreams had kept me focused on the reality of what real life was, what my part in it was not and therefore, I would never have convinced myself, in a thousand million years, that I’d meet a stranger like Robert MacGregor, quiet and strong and direct, who would tell me that he liked me, and that he wanted me to stay. Why had he done that? I could not have told you at that moment, even if my very life depended on it. All I knew was that I had agreed.
And then my thoughts became frantic. Was this not the same old situation dressed up to appear fresh? I was in his home, and I was the one who wanted to leave, and granted, it usually happened the other way around, but was it not the same thing really? All he had actually said was he ‘liked’ me. It did not mean that he wanted love, and I knew that I should NOT read anything more into it. What about that kiss? What else could I make of that but the fact that he just wanted to get into my pants eventually? Like most men in the world, I did not think that Robert was any different, for all that he lived on his own, on a remote farm in the Scottish Highlands. Men were built with sexual radars, I was sure of that much, and when the chance of a passing sexual encounter came their way, it usually didn’t matter what I looked like or who I was, just so long as their immediate pressing need was satisfied. Did I not perhaps present a fresh prospect that had actually fallen into his lap quite by chance? Then again, what was so wrong with that? I was not a stranger to casual sex. I had needs too, and on occasion in the past, I had satisfied them with whoever was willing and passable, but then I'd felt terribly guilty that I was being a hypocrite.
Robert was not only passable, he made my knees buckle.
I sighed, frustrated again. I knew how it would go. It would go the way it always did. No matter how much I would convince myself that a passing roll in the hay, if you would pardon the pun, would mean nothing to me, I’d grow attached to him by the simple act that we had shared. I’d be pathetic, fall in love, give myself over and then I’d be cast aside. And I had grown up, dammit! That was not the way I did things anymore! I could avoid it all by simply leaving. So why was I still here?!
My intuitive voice then told me he was just lonely, like me, and that maybe what he needed was just a friend. Perhaps, for once in my life, I could try to be one, to stand strong in my convictions, and put my self-restraint to the test. Just because we both happened to be single, and physically fitted together in the way that God intended, it didn't mean that it was an automatic green light to hop in the sack and get jiggy with it.
Decision made. Or so I'd thought.